Parshas Shmos #1
Living in Two Worlds
“He saw an Egyptian man hitting a Hebrew man, of his brothers. He turned [and looked] both ways, and he saw that there was no man [present], so he hit the Egyptian and buried him in the sand” (Shmos 2:11-12).
Amram and Yocheved’s infant son was born under the shadow of Pharaoh’s decree against all newborn baby boys: “Every boy that is born, throw him into the river” (Shmos 1:22). Hoping to save her baby, Yocheved set him afloat in a basket on the Nile. He was rescued by none other than Pharaoh’s daughter Basyah, who adopted him and raised him as her own son (ibid. 2:2-6). Not only was Moshe, future leader and liberator of the Jewish people, spared from Pharaoh’s decree, he was raised in Pharaoh’s own palace as a royal Egyptian prince!
Despite his privileged upbringing, Moshe’s Jewish identity was strong. When he grew up, “he went out to his brothers, and he saw their suffering,” arriving just in time to witness an act of brutality. “He saw an Egyptian man hitting a Hebrew man, of his brothers. He turned [and looked] both ways, and he saw that there was no man [present], so he hit the Egyptian and buried him in the sand.”
Moshe’s response to this incident literally changed his life. After he killed the oppressive Egyptian taskmaster, he was forced to flee his comfortable life in Egypt (ibid. 3:15). This began the journey which would eventually bring him back to Egypt not as Pharaoh’s favored grandson, but as Hashem’s messenger to free the Jews. The wording of the passuk suggests an insight into Moshe’s thoughts at the time.
On the one hand, Moshe was an Egyptian prince. On the other, in his earliest years he had been raised by Yocheved (ibid. 7-9), who taught him that no matter where he was, he was a Jew. Where should his loyalties lie – with the Egyptian overlords, or with the Jewish slaves? Fidelity to one aspect of his identity meant betrayal of the other.
Moshe “turned [and looked] both ways, and he saw that there was no man.” Understood simply, this means that he looked to see if the coast was clear before taking action. I have also heard these words explained as a reference to the conflict between his two identities; who was he? Moshe had to look inside himself “both ways,” and decide where he stood. Was he a Jew, or an Egyptian? If he defended the slave, it meant that he saw himself above all as a Jew. If he condoned the beating and did nothing, it meant that he was an Egyptian first and foremost. If Moshe could not decide who he really was, “he saw that there was no man” – he had no identity.
It did not take Moshe long to decide. At great personal risk, he saved his fellow Jew, effectively discarding the Egyptian in him and “burying” it forever. With this act, Moshe made the irrevocable decision that he was and always would be a Jew.
Throughout our history, Jews everywhere have faced a similar conflict. Are we Jewish Americans, or American Jews? Are we English, Canadian, South African or Israeli first, and Jews only second? Or are we Jews, who happen to reside in a country which has allowed us a place to live and thrive?
Question for Discussion:
Much like Moshe in ancient Egypt, Jews in the modern world face great tension between two “identities.” When were you faced with a dilemma between secular and Jewish values, and what did you decide?Click Here To Respond
Avi, orginally from Toronto and Dallas, now an engineering student at Tel Aviv University: I was raised in an old-school secular Russian family. Decency and propriety, clean language, respect for elders, and more were all expected and rigorously enforced. In addition, I attended religious Jewish schools in Toronto until my bar mitzvah, where these values, along with the standards taught by the Torah, were part of my daily life. After my bar mitzvah, my parents moved to Dallas, Texas, to a neighborhood that was about twenty-five percent Jewish. They saw no reason to pay for me to continue in a Jewish school, when I could attend the second highest ranking public school in the country for free.
The culture shock was enormous. Until then, I had gone to a frum, all-boys school. My television viewing time was strictly limited, with only educational programs allowed. Now I was in eighth grade in a co-ed public school, with kids who were watching x-rated movies. I felt like I had been deposited in a zoo, where I could choose between being an animal exhibit, or a zookeeper. I was not interested in becoming an animal, and I reacted very strongly.
Ironically, when I was in yeshivah day school, Torah and mitzvos were strictly for the classroom. Now, in the space of six months, I was going to public school wearing a yarmulke and tzitzis. I was shomer negiah, and tried to daven regularly. I began bringing along my Tanach and printouts of whatever pages of Gemara I had learned, to study and review on my own between classes.
All this did not make me very popular. In ninth grade, a Jewish girl in my class told me that she hated me; her rabbi had said that she did not need to do anything “Jewish” to be a good Jew, and I made her feel guilty. Most of the other Jewish kids were also not sympathetic, and my friends were, for the most part, religious Christians, Orientals, and even a few atheists. Sad to say, these classmates were more decent and respectful.
Those years in school were very difficult, and very lonely. As the only student who wore a kippah, I was once approached to ask the principal to permit wearing baseball caps to school, to make it easier for other Jewish students. I refused, saying that if anyone was having problems with wearing a kippah, he should come to me. Another time, I argued – successfully – against an entire civics class, that religion has a place in politics and public life.
In my senior year, I was chatting online with a girl whom I had admired for years. She let me know that she did not have a date for the senior prom, and it was pretty obvious that if I asked her, she would accept. The struggle was enormous. For a full five minutes I sat there, feeling an almost physical sensation pulling me to jump at the opportunity.
Baruch Hashem, I realized in the end that as tempting as it was, it went against the very fiber of everything I stood for and believed in, and the way my parents had raised me. The prom and what it represented were not right for any Jew, religious or not. As Jews, we need to be guided by religious beliefs, not by secular norms. For me, going to the prom would have meant joining the zoo, and that was not for me.